Learn on our farm tour about superior alpaca fiber characteristics.
Known as the “Fabric of the Gods” in the Inca Empire, alpaca fiber was considered a symbol of high social status and a greatly desired commodity. Peruvian alpaca fiber is rarer than cashmere. Llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas were domesticated thousands of years ago by the ancient Peruvians. The larger, more durable llama was used as a beast of burden while the smaller, fluffy alpaca was solely used for its prized fiber.
Alpacas natural coats offer 22 recognized color shades ranging from black to silver, rose gray and white; from mahogany brown to light fawn and champagne.
Alpaca is an extremely fine and actually hollow fiber, producing a soft, lightweight yarn. It is also lanolin-free therefore hypoallergenic.
Huacaya and Suri Alpacas
There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya (which produce a dense, soft, crimpy fiber), and Suri (with silky pencil-like locks, similar to dreadlocks but without matted fibers).
Baby Alpaca actually refers to the fineness of the fiber not necessarily to the first shearing (even though typically the finest shearing for that particular animal).
To qualify as Baby Alpaca quality, the mean fiber diameter needs to be 22.5 microns or less. An average human hair has a diameter of 100 microns.
Royal Alpaca is even finer than baby alpaca with a mean fiber diameter of less than 19 microns.
In North America, alpacas are shorn once a year (typically in May for Canada). The fiber will than need to be sorted and graded as the entire body of the animal does not produce the same quality of fiber. Think about the hair on your head vs the hairs on other parts of the human body !
The prime fiber is called the blanket and is situated on the sides of the animal. Neck fiber is soft but shorter while leg fiber is coarser. A careful grading is hence necessary to obtain the best quality yarn possible. Most of the animal’s fiber can be used but with different end products in view. Leg fiber will make great insoles for your boots….but the blanket of a fine animal will be a delight to wear close to your face and neck.
Once the fiber has been carefully sorted and graded (by size of fiber, length of fiber as well as by color), it is off to the mill where it will be washed. Alpaca fiber is washed with hot water (160 oF-70 oC) and soap (regular dish soap will do the trick). So no harsh chemicals.
At home, for your alpaca garment, you will only need cold water and a small amount of mild liquid detergent. Eucalan soap products are great for delicate, no rinse washing.
Alpaca is a hollow fiber; sheep wool has pockets of air. Air will trap heat and create thermal capacity. The more air pockets, the warmer the garment ! Thus, alpaca tends to be warmer than wool. With 3-7X the insulating characteristics, it will also be lighter than Merino for the same warmth factor.
If you pour water on an alpaca, it will get wet! Come see our alpacas on a rainy day to see what I mean! However, alpaca fiber does offer great wicking abilities. Wool will absorb up to 50% of its body weight in moisture,and then it will reach its saturation point. Sweat will sit next to your skin, increasing discomfort. As alpaca fibers are hollow, they trap in more heat and mechanically push the water out, never having a saturation point on the skin. Essentially, the water evaporates because of the air in the alpaca's fiber.
Alpacas only have teeth on their lower jaw. The alpaca eats grass growing from the ground by shutting its mouth on it, pressing the grass against the dental pad (upper jaw) with its incisors (teeth at the front of the lower jaw). With the grass held firmly, the animal tears it away and eats. The alpaca also has 6 molars plus premolars, useful when it comes to chewing their cud and digesting their food.
Alpacas also have two soft foot pads as well as two hard toenails making them very low impact on pasture.
Alpacas are one of the greenest animals on the planet. Their hooves are softly padded which reduces environmental impact. They also produce more fleece than sheep and they have more effective eating and drinking habits than other grazing animals, which also reduces impact. They are finely suited to the harsh conditions of the Peruvian Andes, and the fact that the animals are not harmed during the shearing process means that they are highly sustainable. The process of alpaca farming does not require harsh chemicals – this means that alpaca farming is completely safe and natural for the environment.